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When you think of figures from history who have made an impact upon Chiangmai you would probably think of King Mengrai first as the founder of the city as the “Lanna” Northern, capital. This golden age for Chiangmai lasted for several hundred years before the Burmese captured the city in 1556 and were to remain here for the following 200 years. After the eventual liberation the princes of Chiangmai were to remain the nominal rulers of the north of the country right up until 1939. If you take a look at a map of Chiangmai today the name of one of the princes still crops up, Kawila or Gawila (เจ้ากาวิละ) _ but who exactly was he ? Born in 1742, Gawila was the first of ten children of Prince Chai Kaew (เจ้าชายแก้ว) of Lampang. Prince Chai Kaew was the son of Jao Thipchaang (เจ้าทิพย์ช้าง) As he grew up he developed miltary prowess and after he succeeded his father and became ruler of Lampang he formed an alliance with Praya Ja Baan (พระยาจ่าบ้าน), the ruler of Chiangmai, in an attempt to rid the cities of oppressive Burmese rule that had stiffled development in this area for so long. In 1767 they sought the help of King Taaksin who had regrouped his forces at Thonburi after the destruction of Ayutthaya. Taaksin sent an army under the command of Thong Duang of an Ayutthayan noble family who later took the title of Jao Praya Chakri. With the help of Gawila they overthrew the Burmese in Lampang in 1774 and in Chiangmai in 1776. After Burmese counter-attacks, however, Chiangmai had to be abandoned again. In spite of an incident that resulted in imprisonment, sickness and death for Praya Ja Baan and in Gawila being lashed and having the rims of his ears sliced for impudence, King Taaksin gave Gawila the task of rebuilding Chiangmai. Gawila’s position was strengthened when King Taaksin was ousted in a coup in March 1782 and Jao Praya Chakri was invited to assume the throne. He took the title of Rama I and thus established the Chakri dynasty which continues to today with King Bhumibol being Rama IX. [These were brutal times and once on the throne Rama I had King Taaksin executed. In accordance with tradition the execution had to be carried out in such a way that no royal blood would be spilled on the earth. Consequently King Taaksin was secured in a velvet sack and struck on the base of his neck with a large sandalwood club. Another version of events suggests that the person killed was not Taaksin at all and that he was allowed to live out his life in secret in a palace in the hills].

Gawila continued to campaign against the Burmese who renewed hostilities on several occasions, most notably in 1785, but they were emphatically repelled each time. An information plaque that stands adjacent to the Prince Gawila Memorial tells the story of his recapture of Chiangmai which he formally reoccupied in 1796. Under the title of ‘The Day Chiangmai’s Revival Began’, it reads....

“In 1782 King Rama I of Bangkok appointed Jao Gawila of Lampang to be ruler of Chiangmai with the title Praya Wachira Pragaan (พระยาวชิร ปราการ). On Thursday 22 August 1782 Gawila led his troops from Lampang to Wang Sakhaeng, at the mouth of the Lee River, where he rested his men and recruited additional troops. Then he moved to Wiang Pa Zang south of Lamphun. Here he stayed for 14 years, 4 months and 20 days. On Sunday 5 March 1796 he left Pa Zang and travelled with his troops in 5 days to Wat Buppharam at Chiangmai which he reached on 9 March 1796. Here they rested. Later in the morning Gawila and his people walked around the city in a ceremonial procession, first going south then turning west, north and east and paid homage to the principal Buddha image in Wat Pha Yun outside the city to the north. Between 10:30 and 12:00am (at the hour of “trae thiang”) he entered the city in procession through the Chang Phuak Gate and took up his residence at Chiang Khwang in front of Wat Chiang Mun. From here he began the task of reviving Chiangmai”.

By 1796 Chiangmai had been desolate for almost 20 years and, as mentioned previously, the task of restoring the city had been given to Gawila who became known as the ‘Viceroy of the North’. Threats to the city continued at this time so initially Gawila set about rebuilding the city’s fortifications. The original moat, city walls and gates were a reminder of King Mengrai’s time and, although what we see today are 19th century reconstructions, they would still be recognisable to Gawila. By 1800 the defences had been strengthened and the repopulation of the city had commenced with many people being brought here from the communities of Chang Saen in the north of Chiangrai province. These people settled to the south and east of the old city and were given protection in the form of an earthen wall lined with bricks. Gawila may have built this wall or it more likely was a restored former structure. This rampart is far less well known than the photogenic city walls and gates but can still be seen in several places. Kamphaengdin Road, between Loy Kroh and Tha Pae roads, is actually named after the earth wall and although it has been breached by modern development it can still be seen along the eastern side of this road rising some 15-20 ft above street level in places. Gawila also set about rebuilding many of the city’s temples which had also not fared well under Burmese occupation.

In 1802 King Rama I officially appointed Gawila as ruler of Chiangmai. Gawila placed his brothers as rulers of other northen cities and continued with campaigns against the Burmese until he died of fever in 1815 leaving a brother as the new Jao. The second of Gawila’s two sons eventually became the sixth ruler of Chiangmai, Jao Gawiloros.

As we have already stated, the results of Gawila’s work can still be seen around the city and as a tribute to his military skills, his statue and Prince Gawila Memorial now stands in front of the 33rd Military Circle Gawila Army Camp on the old Lamphun Road out of Chiangmai. The Memorial takes the form of a large standing statue atop of a stone plinthe. In front of the statue people still leave offerings of fruit and flowers and light candles and incense in his honour. Around the Memorial is a pleasant garden leading down to the eastern banks of the Ping River. There is also a small museum on the site but during several visits I have made here it has always been locked up. At the beginning of February each year a ceremony is held here to venerate Gawila’s memory. There is also a hospital to the rear of the army base named after him and a Muay Thai boxing stadium a few hundred yards out of town over Nawarat Bridge.

Steve Maidment

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